Real Madrid were boosted by the return of Hazard and James to fitness although also hit with injuries to Modric and Valverde during the international break. Zidane didn’t deviate too much from his standard template opting to insert James in the midfield while keeping the rest of the team as expected. Vazquez and Vinicius were the starting wingers given Bale’s suspension.
On paper, the team was in a 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1) with Casemiro, Kroos and James helming the midfield but as the game unfolded, it became clear that the structure was much more dynamic and James’ role was very fluid.
James’ role and the vitality of fullbacks
One of the notable aspects of the first half was James’ role and how it evolved during the match as it influenced the overall team structure and style of play. The Colombian essentially occupied a hybrid role where he primarily focused on offensive play via traditional No. 10 positioning – taking advantage of his exquisite touch and productive vision – but would selectively retreat to deeper areas to support Casemiro and Kroos in building tempo and organizing possession. As the half wore on, the Colombian retreated more and more into central midfield.
The effect of James’ hybrid role was a lopsided shape as Kroos typically favoured the left side while Casemiro stayed in the middle. Carvajal offered a compensating presence on the right (given James’ advanced positioning) by supplying consistent openings and passing options in the midfield line. The fullbacks would prove crucial to Real Madrid’s excellent first half as the attack flowed through the wings. Marcelo and Carvajal were very active and worked with the wingers to optimize spacing and create rooms for deliveries and crosses.
This was evident in the opener. Vazquez made a decoy run to the byline which Carvajal detected and took advantage of as Martinez’s attention was pulled away. Carvajal cut inside and beautifully chipped in an enticing cross that Benzema nodded into goal after some great movement to escape his markers. The French striker was exceptionally aggressive with his shot selection and play which enhanced the tactics.
Real Madrid’s great transition offense
Another aspect of Real Madrid’s offense was how adept and efficient they were when turning recovery of possession into attack. This was significantly aided by one of the wingers or James shifting higher up the pitch when the ball was won back around the middle of the park. The midfield would then immediately look to directly feed one of Benzema (or the supporting player) and the two would try to use combination play to exploit a destabilized defense.
This created the second and third goals. For the second. after the team won the ball back, Vinicius launched the ball towards Benzema who contested for it against a Levante defender. The ball fell to James who immediately slipped it to Benzema (who finished off a great look in the box).
In the leadup to the third goal, Varane stepped up to intercept a loose pass, the ball quickly found its way to Benzema. He cleverly sucked in Levante defenders before playing a reverse pass to Vazquez. Vinicius sensed the potential of the play and made a run behind the defense that Vazquez met wonderfully. The Brazilian then found Casemiro who was open in the box.
Zidane goes for the killer blow, Hazard on for Casemiro
Following a stuttering start to the second half, Zidane decided to take advantage of the two goal cushion and try to finish off Levante. The manager brought on Hazard for Casemiro switching the formation to a more defined 4-3-3. Militao also replaced Ramos but with less tactical and stylistic ramifications than the Belgian’s entrance.
Taking out Casemiro for Hazard transformed Real Madrid’s possession quality immediately. The Belgian’s ability to move into open spaces combined with his fantastic control/touch led to some amazing sequences of flowing football. Within ten minutes of him coming on, the team had created great chances for Vinicius and Hazard himself. The passing combinations and active involvement of all six midfield/forward players meant a tired Levante defense couldn’t keep up with the dynamic fluid ball movement.
However, due to Real’s poor finishing, the game had a nervier ending than was warranted. Levante got a second goal as a result of a poorly designed defensive setup for a cross where Carvajal and Marcelo faced a height mismatch at the back post. Additionally, Courtois was forced into a late critical save which could have robbed Real of the win. The home team were able to hold on and secure the three points (which on the overall balance of play was a fair outcome as evidenced by the shot statistics).